Fall From Grace — Chapter Six

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Someone was trying to kill her. Their hands on her shoulders shook her like a rag doll, back and forth, back and forth. Somewhere Griffin was shouting her name, but when she looked towards him there was no skin on him anymore and he was lying still, looking up at her with accusing eyes. There was no salvation for her now, and even as she tried to tell him that she was not Ilona any more, that her name was something different, she surfaced from the awful dream into the gloom of a room lit by meagre candlelight.

‘Wake up, my lady,’ Swallow was saying as she leant over her, gently shaking, and it took a moment for her words to reach through the fog of confusion.

‘Not a lady,’ was all Ilona could manage at first, drowsily sitting up and wiping her eyes to remove all traces of sleep from them. Swallow had woken her up so many times before that it seemed a perfectly normal thing, though it had never been this early in the morning.

‘Sorry — it’s just habit,’ Swallow replied with a smile, though the look in her eyes was one of pity. ‘You need to get up and get dressed. There’s a uniform here for you, it ought to be a fair enough fit.’

‘Where?’ Ilona asked, feeling the beginnings of a headache throb behind her left eye as she looked around for a screen to change behind.

‘Right here, I’m afraid,’ Swallow replied sympathetically. ‘We don’t have fancy furniture like what you can afford upstairs, so it’s this room and no other for us. Just do it quick and make sure to get your dress on first, then no one’ll see anything when you change the rest.’

Around them, most of the other servants were already dressed or almost finished, conversing in hushed morning tones as they stretched and rubbed tired eyes. This was no unusual morning for them. Looking to the far side of the room, where the men slept across a corridor that divided their rows of beds from the women, she caught sight of Jed watching her with a smirk and shivered.

The uniform was one that she was familiar with, having seen the servants around her wearing it for her whole life. A simple white shift dress that reached down to her knees, with a black apron to be fastened over the top, both bearing the golden calligraphic ‘B’ of the Breckenridge house stamped in a corner. Since it was winter there were also thick black tights to be worn underneath, as well as sturdy black shoes that Swallow instructed her to be very careful with, since new shoes were only issued once every two years. If she wore them out before then, she was warned, she would have to trade for them herself, using the small amount of wages that were meant to go towards savings, the care of infants, and other expenses.

She dressed with difficulty, feeling acutely the stares of others as she attempted to cover herself adequately, and the fabric was rough against her skin. She was used to fine silks and chiffons, not this cheap material that scratched and irritated every time she moved. The shoes were slightly too big, and already showed some wear on the heels — it seemed they had belonged to the girl who had been sent to auction, and Ilona guessed that she was not to be issued with her own, better-fitting pair until these had seen two full years of service. They began to rub her feet almost immediately as she slid around inside the loose shoes, and she almost stumbled into the next bed when she tried to walk over to Swallow.

‘Careful, miss,’ Swallow murmured, steadying her with one hand on her elbow, as Jed guffawed loudly behind them.

‘I’m alright,’ she replied hastily, smoothing her dress and turning towards the other side of the room so that Jed could not see how flushed her face was.

The windows showed a bleak blackness outside, the light of the candles inside enough to render seeing out there completely impossible. Ilona wondered what the farmhands could possibly achieve in this darkness; they soon began to troop out, however, Cornmouse elbowing Jed and Marten as the trio cast glances over their shoulders before they left. She breathed a sigh of relief to have them away from her again, though that temporary respite was soon replaced by a fear that gripped her as she finished fastening her black apron around her waist. She was living a new life now, a life that fitted her as badly as the shoes did — and the collar around her neck was a weight that reminded her of how irrevocable it all was.

Swallow pressed a hand to her elbow, not unkindly, and gestured towards the door. ‘We must get going, miss. We’re not to be late for the morning count. Molly don’t like it too well if we aren’t on time, and it’s best to keep on her good side if you can.’

Ilona nodded, though the advice only made her more uncomfortable. She had a feeling that she was already on Molly’s bad side, and it was not helping the queasiness in the pit of her stomach. Following Swallow and the handful of other maids, she left the sleeping quarters and moved through cold, undecorated stone hallways to the main sitting room, where the housekeeping staff were to meet every morning.

They emerged into the room from a cleverly concealed door that would look to any guest simply like another panel in the wooden walls, and Ilona forced back a heavy feeling in the back of her eyelids. Until yesterday this had been her rightful place — where she would sit with her mother to entertain guests, and where they would celebrate important family events together. She looked longingly at the padded white seats of their expensive loveseat, the ivory embroidery in the shape of swirling flowers on vines that she had idly traced with her fingers many a time before. Instead of flouncing over and throwing herself across it as she might have, as she longed to, she stood awkwardly in the centre of the room amidst her fellow servants. They all looked at her oddly and kept their distance, apart from Swallow, who stuck to her like a shadow. She nudged the edge of the familiar ornate rug imported from an exotic distant region with her oversized shoes, feeling like an intruder in what had been her home.

The door swept open abruptly after only a brief few minutes, and Molly appeared in the doorway like a flash of thunder. Ilona had not expected a warm welcome, but the head housekeeper singled her out with a glare immediately, her brow forming into a tight neat line that spoke of pure rage.

‘You!’ she snapped, pointing at her as if there could be any mistake as to who she was referring to. There was fire in her voice, and Ilona trembled under its force. ‘Out, this instant. Get out to the yard! If I catch you in here again, it will be a grave mistake — now go, go! Get out of here!’

She stumbled forwards and into the doorway, slipping past the glowering figure with a kind of blind panic as she struggled to understand what she had done wrong. Had she not been meant for housekeeping staff after all? A last fearful glance over her shoulder showed her a confused frown on Swallow’s face, but it was only when Molly shut the door so fast behind her that her hair shifted in the breeze that she realised she had no idea of how to get to the yard within the servants’ passageways.

She tried one direction, utterly turned around already due to the uniformity of the corridors, but only found herself back at the sleeping quarters from which she had emerged minutes before; the windows still only showed her darkness, so she could not even decide on which side of the building the yard lay. Had Molly meant the courtyard, where all visitors were ushered to leave behind their horses or carriages and enter the house from the front? Or the paved areas at the back of the house, that connected all the outbuildings and garden walks? She took a deep breath and decided to opt for the latter, turning to rush back in the same direction for a second time.

Passing the sitting room door, she thought she heard the muffled voice of Molly giving out instructions; she forced herself to walk faster, fearing that she would be in even more trouble if she did not arrive to the yard before her superior did. What kind of punishment would that merit? She had no idea what the system really was — the discipline of servants was not something for a young lady of the house to be concerned with, and Griffin had never really spoken to her about his way of life. It had not mattered to her, then. So long as he had time to see her in the day, she did not care to know any other details. Now, she cursed herself for not asking questions that could have proven useful to her.

At last she came upon a door on the correct side of the corridor, to her left, after passing several on the right. Trying it, she found herself in a small chamber set with small windows and another white door that led straight into the yard, the pre-dawn air bitingly cold as it hit her bare skin. She turned back to face the house and recognised now the exit she had taken: painted on the white wood in careful black letters were the words, ‘servant’s entrance’. She had never needed to use it before, nor stopped to muse on the fact that she had never seen the other side. How much of this house was unknown to her, even as someone who had lived there for her whole life!

She heard distant laughter on the breeze then. The light of the sun was beginning to paint the sky, even though it had not yet crested the horizon; she made out, dimly, several bulky forms over by the furthest storage house, and realised that it was the farmhands gathering their days’ equipment. With a shudder she pressed close to the bricks of the wall, hoping that they would not see her or find a reason to come over.

In what seemed an impossibly fast sequence, the sun at last appeared, at first only with the slimmest disk of light that just bridged the gap between night and day, then rapidly rising to hover above the fields in pale morning light. Somewhere out on the pastoral side of the fields, a cockerel crowed. Ilona rubbed her eyes, feeling tired and cold and foggy from everything that had happened so far. When she tried to think about it, it seemed absurd that she should be standing here, dressed as a maid with a blue band, goosebumps over her arms as she waited to find out what she had done wrong to make the head housekeeper shout at her.

At last the door to the house swung open, and Molly emerged with a scowl. ‘Girl number seven,’ she announced crisply, seemingly having chosen to refer to her as that from now on, as if her name were offensive to the tongue. ‘You are henceforth forbidden from stepping into the family areas of the house. The main courtyard and the entrances are also out of bounds. If one of the Breckenridges or their guests should ever catch sight of you, you are to be severely punished. Do you comprehend what I am saying, girl?’

Ilona nodded numbly, her whole body overcome with ice. Now she understood her real punishment. Her mother, her father, her brothers and her little sister — even while living as their servant, she was never to see any of them again.